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December 20, 2014

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LEGISLATURE 2013:

Funding boost for English-language learners prompts some backlash

Gov. Brian Sandoval called it historic. State Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis called it momentous. No state legislator voted against it.

The Clark County School Board unanimously approved it.

But for some, the state’s $50 million in new spending for English-language learners smacks of special treatment and seems like an unjust, unfair burden on taxpayers who must subsidize the education of a select group of outsiders.

These views — expressed in newspaper comment sections and on call-in radio shows — dramatically differ from the bipartisan comity among elected officials, representing a backlash to the unanimous opinions of the political and education officials who pushed the bill at the Legislature.

Now the funding’s supporters are busy trying to hammer home the facts and dispel myths associated with English-language learners, and in doing so they’re engaging in sometimes difficult conversations about race, class, identity and immigration.

A caller from Las Vegas told KNPR’s "State of Nevada" talk show last week that he has a child in first grade who isn't getting help from the Clark County School District.

“How can I justify requesting millions of dollars for foreign kids when we can’t even help our own kids here in our own state?” said the caller, who identified himself as Dmitri. “When you have other people from other countries coming here, and I understand their kids need to learn the language, but shouldn’t that fall back on them, that expense?”

On the other end of the line were Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV law professor who supports funding to help children learn the English language, and Sonya Horsford, education professor at the Lincy Institute at UNLV.

“The assumption that students whose home language is not English are foreign or not our responsibility is a problem,” said Horsford, who encouraged the caller to press the issue with his child’s school so that the child could receive help.

The caller’s concerns were characteristic of the remarks of other commenters who encourage charging tuition for English classes or ask why “foreigners,” “invaders,” “illegal aliens" or children other than their own should be receiving extra help.

School District data actually refute the notion that most English-language learners are foreign or lack legal residency status.

About 80 percent of the School District’s English-language learner students are from the United States, and about 90 percent speak Spanish, according to the district.

The majority of the state’s 55,000 English-language learner students live in Clark County.

As a group, English-language learners have one of the lowest graduation rates in the district, spurring supporters of the new money to note that enhancing educational opportunities for these students helps the community as a whole.

“They are the driver of our dropout (rate),” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV.

Lazos said the school system also does not adequately serve special education and gifted students.

“But it’s become a huge issue with ELL kids because there are so many of them and the education gap is so large,” she said.

School District representatives largely agree that dedicating resources to students who don’t speak, read, write or understand English well will pay dividends in the future.

Clark County schools haven’t discussed levying a fee on parents whose children enter English programs, said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the district.

“This is a population that cannot be ignored,” she said. “When we’re talking about improving Clark County schools as a whole, we cannot ignore ELL students. People understand the issue that, again, the success of this population of students directly impacts the success of all of our students.”

Lazos also said that the courts take an unfavorable view of levying fees or charging tuition for public education. She argues that it would be discriminatory to establish financial barriers to students deficient in a specific language.

Often, the debate about the English language in Nevada is also a debate about Spanish.

Senate Bill 504, which laid the framework for the $50 million in statewide ELL funding, was called “English Language Learning for Our Students” or ELLOS, which means “they” in Spanish.

Denis, the first Hispanic majority leader of the state Senate, coined the term, but said that policymakers changed the name and designated the 14 schools in Clark County to receive the new funding as “zoom schools” so it wasn’t “specifically Spanish.”

While race and economic backgrounds are typical in discussions about graduation rates and test scores, Horsford said it’s more difficult to introduce race, class and income into the debate about how to divide educational resources.

“It’s just the classic dynamic where people are fighting over a very small pie,” she said. “Instead of thinking of ways to enlarge the overall pie, we end up fighting over scarce and limited resources.”

In this case, the money for English-language learners is part of a budget that also includes new funding for full-day kindergarten and a general increase in what the state spends per student.

The $50 million in ELL funding will buy pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten classes, summer academies, reading development centers, additional textbooks and supplies, and new technologies like tablet and laptop computers.

Funding will also lower kindergarten class ratios to 22 students to one teacher.

The funding comes in part as a policy reaction to studies showing that Nevada was one of only three states not to spend state dollars on English-language learners.

Some advocates of English instruction view the $50 million as a small nod to a long-festering gap between an education funding system designed in the 1960s and the needs of 21st century students. They have threatened a lawsuit over inadequate funding of Nevada’s schools.

Although ELL students have learned to speak one language at home and may struggle to acquire new skills in English at school, they represent the future working population that has the potential to bolster Clark County’s economy.

“As a community we need to take ownership for these kids’ future,” Lazos said. “These are the kids who are going to be paying my Social Security, for example. I need them to not be a drag on the economy.”

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